The Pharisee and the Publican, from Tetraevangelion by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Pharisee and the Publican, from Tetraevangelion, 12th century, Manuscript illumination, 220 x 150 mm [page], The National Library, Athens, Greece, Codex 93, fol. 127v, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

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Beseeching and Reaching

Commentary by

This Byzantine manuscript illumination does away with the narrative setting, props, and staging of Luke’s story. We simply have two figures against a gold ground. The colourfully dressed pharisee lifts his gaze and extends his right arm towards a heavenly opening above him. His left arm is extended as if in invitation towards his companion. The tax collector is drably dressed, bent in half to suggest his humility, and without a head covering.

Contrary to the text, in which each man keeps to himself—perhaps even unaware that the other is in the building—here, the men face each other. The penitent’s plaintive eyes look up to the uplifted face of the pharisee and he reaches toward the pharisee’s extended hand. Although their hands do not meet, the energy in the composition flows from left to right then upwards, from the bent penitential back of the tax collector through his outstretched hand to the other man’s upwardly extending body and arm and finally to the opening above him.

Thus, unlike in Luke’s text, the figures facing each other are shown in relationship. The pharisee beseeching heaven seems to be sending the penitent’s prayers aloft as the priestly conduit of contrition.

Triumph and shame defy colourization. The one reaching to heaven is not an exemplification of the disgraced Synagogue as he was so frequently in the church-sponsored works of later artists. The agonized penitent is not the triumphant Church that the Strasbourg sculptor, elsewhere in this exhibition, carved for his cathedral. The artist seems to have turned Luke around.

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